Something was missing at the Chelsea hotel in Atlantic City. Where was the clamor of slot machines, the garish carpeting, the sour scent of desperation, sweat and stale cigarettes? My eyes could not believe what they were not seeing: There was no casino at this Boardwalk property.
I know, shocking. I figured that management would tuck a roulette wheel or a poker table somewhere among the 358 rooms. Perhaps behind the bookshelves cluttered with serious literature and animal-shape bookends. Or in the DMZ space between the steakhouse and the nightclub. But no: The hotel is game-free. Wait, let me qualify: It’s game-free and not a dive. (Some of the dinkier budget properties don’t have casinos, either.)
Despite its newness (it opened in 2008), the Chelsea has an old soul, adopting the history of its buildings’ former occupants, the Holiday Inn Atlantic City-Boardwalk and the Howard Johnson. To illustrate the now and then, the woman at check-in pointed to a group of fashionable young things lounging on a purple couch. Years before, she said, diners were stuffing their faces at the deli in that same spot. Today, all traces of mustard and mayo have been erased.
The hotel is divided into two sections, the Luxe Tower in the Holiday Inn building and the Annex in the HoJo. The Luxe rooms are go-go chic, with studded animal-print chairs, large desks as white as disco boots and a pair of cockatoo-shaped lamps at bedsides. The alternate lodging, currently under renovation, is darker, scruffier and lacking natural water views.
All the diversions are housed on the pretty side of the property. The Chelsea Prime restaurant is arranged like an intimate lounge club, with a white piano set against the large picture window and two tiers of seating. Dozens of black-and-white photos freeze-frame the city’s more shimmery moments and denizens: swanky men in light summer suits, leggy Miss America contestants, the kittenish Marilyn Monroe and the always debonair Frank Sinatra. In the adjoining bar, I considered settling in for an apropos cocktail — cable car, dirty martini, old fashioned — but the sight of a stranger exercising in the fitness center of the adjacent apartment building squelched my liquid nostalgia.
The 10,000-square-foot Sea Spa hides behind glass doors on the path between the lobby and Teplitzky’s deli. If you have a weakness for fried mac n’ cheese or matzoh balls and noodles, you’ll know this route well. The wellness center extols the salutary virtues of salt. This isn’t some newfangled sodium chloride fad: The previous guest rooms featured four taps, two for fresh water and two for saltwater. The town’s hotels also filled their pools with the saline stuff, a tradition the Chelsea takes outdoors.
The open-air saltwater pool is complimentary, but it’s best enjoyed as part of the full-body-plunge Solarium experience. For $15, dip and sit all day in the sauna, the hot tub and the steam room.
With the guidance of a spa employee, I created a strategy for opening my pores and gelatinizing my muscles. I started in the hot tub, standing beneath a waterfall that pounded my back like a coach after a big win. I followed that with the sauna, grabbing a magazine in the naive belief that I could outlast Hell. Less than a page later, I retreated to the steam room.
The final stage was the most adventurous: the heated outdoor pool on a below-40-degree morning. Wrapped in multiple towels, I avoided the shadows darkening the deck and kept to the narrow strips of sun. At the pool’s edge, I dropped my insulation and entered, a cowardly polar bear swimmer. I dunked down as far as I could, trying to capture the warm steam on my cheeks, but the top of my head grew cold. Grabbing my towels, I raced to the door. Locked! I tried another entrance, within view of the diners at Teplitzky’s.
For a fleeting moment, I was horrified at my partial public exposure. But I quickly regained my composure: At least I wasn’t flashing a whole casino.